When his text messages to a woman not his wife leaked last week, Cal Cunningham, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in North Carolina, was immediately thrust into the time-honored cycle of shame, ridicule, evasiveness, and public apology that comes with political scandal.
But there was an odd addition to that cycle this time around: profit.
As Cunningham’s texts—which included racy gems such as “I kiss back, a lot”—made their way around Twitter and fueled Republican attacks, a number of people responded to the revelations by immediately opening their wallets and forking over cash to the guy who used the phrase “historically sexy” to describe his paramour.
“I don’t believe I have directly donated to him until now,” Jared, a Los Angeles resident, told The Daily Beast. When a spokesperson for the Senate GOP’s official campaign arm posted Cunningham’s texts to Twitter on Friday night, Jared was one of several Twitter users to reply with a screenshot of his receipt from the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue, showing a donation to Cunningham.
“I donated to him because there’s nothing more important than Dems winning the Senate, and I want to make sure he has every resource he needs to win,” said Jared. “And I believe that was a matter that only he and his wife/family have any business in.”
It’s not a huge stretch to say that Cunningham’s PG-13 texts could influence the fate of the U.S. Senate. North Carolina is one of a handful of states that will decide which party controls the chamber next year, and the race between Cunningham and Sen. Thom Tillis, the incumbent Republican, has been perhaps the closest, hardest-fought, and most expensive Senate contest in the country.
In recent weeks, some GOP insiders had begun to write off Tillis, who had fallen behind in fundraising and in polls to Cunningham, an Army veteran and former state lawmaker with broad, inoffensive appeal who raised a staggering $28 million over the summer. But the emerging scandal presents an opportunity for Tillis to go on the offensive—even going on TV to hammer Cunningham while the senator recovers from the coronavirus, which he contracted after attending the Sept. 24 White House event for Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
But the fact that this story of infidelity—which once might have tanked someone like Cunningham—has actually galvanized at least some support for the embattled candidate speaks to how thoroughly the era of Donald Trump has obliterated past standards for scandal.
Paloma Rodriguez, a 37-year-old Miami resident who donated to Cunningham, told The Daily Beast that Trump’s own history with women—numerous allegations of rape, sexual assault, and misconduct—has “moved the goalposts” on what the public should expect of its elected officials.
“The GOP accepting every one of Trump’s transgressions and explaining them away have really unmasked their hypocrisy,” said Rodridguez. “They have lost their moral authority, in my view, and every time they try to pronounce this authority, it just fires up people like me. So that’s really why I donated.”
The freshly-minted Cunningham donors who spoke to The Daily Beast had different views on the actual content of the candidate’s messages to Arlene Guzman Todd, a California-based political strategist, which were exchanged after Cunningham, a married father of two, had launched his Senate campaign in 2019.
But their reasons for donating to him after seeing those messages were the same: that the stakes of defeating Tillis were simply too high to let the scandal deflate Cunningham at a critical moment—and that the GOP’s acceptance of the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and assault that surround Trump means that total war is justified.
Denise, a North Carolina native who donated to Cunningham on Friday night, mused whether the moment has pushed Democrats to embrace a zero-sum approach to politics that they’ve long felt was left to conservatives.
“Perhaps this is where I have something in common with the crazy right,” said Denise. “The choices for me are between someone who used poor personal judgment (who hasn’t?) vs. someone who wants to strip health care and reproductive rights.”
Indeed, the North Carolina race hinged on health care—Democrats have relentlessly attacked Tillis for prior efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act—and the emergence of another U.S. Supreme Court confirmation battle has reemphasized the basic stakes of key issues for many Democrats.
Such a stark framing of this race means that Cunningham is better positioned to defy another familiar turn in political scandals: the drip of additional revelations of misconduct that can erode the besieged politician’s support.
On Tuesday, Todd confirmed to the Associated Press that she and Cunningham had been physically intimate—as recently as this summer—meaning that the candidate is guilty of far more than sending some gross text messages. The AP also obtained text messages from Todd to a friend that seemed to suggest revenge on Cunningham not investing in the relationship—and teased another possibly damaging revelation to come. “I’m just going to send to his opponent his naked photos,” Guzman Todd wrote in one of the texts. “That will teach him.”
And on Wednesday morning, the U.S. Army Reserve—in which Cunningham actively serves as a lieutenant colonel—informed Raleigh TV station WRAL that it was investigating “the matters involving” him.
Cunningham himself has largely been in hiding since Friday. He has not done any campaign events or media appearances, and canceled a scheduled availability on Monday. In a brief interview with local news on Wednesday, Cunningham said, “this campaign is not about my personal life.”
The Democrat’s campaign has repeatedly pointed to the statement it issued on Friday, in which Cunningham said, “I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry. The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do. I ask that my family’s privacy be respected in this personal matter.”
It’s unclear what real impact the scandal might have on the broader electorate. One clue came in an East Carolina University poll released Tuesday. Conducted partially after the texting news broke last Friday, the survey gave Tillis one of his best results yet, showing him one point ahead of Cunningham.
Asked about that story on Tuesday, Denise, a North Carolina donor, said it did not change her decision—“hell no!”—to dial up her support for Cunningham. “He’s in big trouble with his wife and I feel horrible for her,” she said. “Ms. Todd is hitting where and when it hurts; I get wanting to be vindictive.”
“The choice is Cunningham or Tillis,” she said. “Our democracy is at stake… It’s a bigger issue. And I hope Cunningham keeps his damn pants zipped. Bottom line, Tillis is worse for my state and country than a man who listened to his other brain.”